AI UNDERSEA MICROSCOPE
Robots are being used to study the underwater world without causing too much of a disturbance
WHETHER YOU CHOOSE
to acknowledge it or not, the robot apocalypse is underway. Robot vacuum cleaners are zooming around our houses, sucking the dirt from our carpets with finesse (and sometimes taking domestic cats along for the ride). They’re out in our gardens, mowing our lawns down to the precise millimetre. They’re teaching our kids how to code.
That said, robots for the home are only a small peek into how this kind of technology is changing the world around us. We are currently overwhelmed by ecological issues around climate change, plastic pollution and how overfishing is wreaking havoc on ocean life. We’ve seen major retailers such as Woolworths and Pick n Pay taking big steps to eliminate their plastic packaging.
But the images on social media, which show animals entangled in plastic, dead sea birds in bulk, divers swimming in a swathe of junk, and beached whales with bellyfuls of our rubbish are only one part of the story. Researchers are now talking about microplastic pollution: As they’re almost invisibly small, these materials get ingested by the smallest sea creatures and may travel all the way up the food chain to humans. We are not yet sure about the long-term consequences, but the chemicals that are absorbed from the layer of marine litter can be dangerous to human and marine health..
In March of 2018, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) unveiled Sofi – a versatile undersea robot that looks and swims like a fish. Sofi, which is short for Soft Robotic Fish, will swim among other fish, giving scientists a new way to observe sea creatures without disturbing them. And unlike most remote-controlled machines, for example, Sofi won’t startle the creatures around it – in her trial swim around Fiji, she had fish swimming right alongside her.
Daniela Rus, a researcher from MIT’S CSAIL (Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory), exclaimed that: ‘[Sofi] is elegant and beautiful to watch in motion. We were excited to see that our fish could swim side by side with real fish, and they didn’t swim away. This is quite different to when a human diver approaches.’
Sofi is 45 cm long and can swim at 23 cm a second up to 18 metres below the surface for 45 minutes, until its battery runs out. Researchers at MIT believe that the robot will be able to provide useful information about ecosystems affected by climate change and pollution by collecting data on ocean behaviour.
While Sofi is not the first autonomous underwater robot by any means, because the robot is not tethered to a boat, or requires power from bulky and expensive propellers, it has a big advantage under the sea. Sofi has a camera system – with a fisheye lens, as luck would have it – that communicates using ultrasound, which, unlike radio signals, propagate relatively well underwater.
Improving on previous autonomous underwater vehicles, Sofi is much lighter and simpler. It houses a single camera and an electric motor, and runs on a lithiumion polymer battery essentially the same as you the one in your phone. Movement comes from a hydraulic pump system – the motor alternates between pumping water into two reservoirs in Sofi’s tail. As one reservoir expands, it bends and flexes to one side. When the water is then pushed into the other reservoir, the tail flexes in the other direction.
These alternating actions create a sideto-side motion that mimics the movement of a real fish. This biomimicry makes it a clever way to help biologists monitor the health of marine habitats without the risk of causing their fishy friends lots of distress.
Sofi has the potential to be a wholly new type of tool for ocean exploration and to open up innovative new avenues for uncovering the mysteries of life under the waves. ‘ We view Sofi as a first step toward developing almost an underwater observatory of sorts,’ concludes Rus.